The Man Who Dared to Be King: Remembering Sean Connery

It’s always unfortunate when an actor’s career, in the wake of their death, gets narrowed down to their singular, most popular role. With the passing of Sir Sean Connery, it was inevitable that the world would be busy bidding farewell to the one and only 007, aka James Bond. After all, he was the first star to embody the world’s greatest spy, the first major star to utter the words, ”The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And yet, today I want to explore the Connery that I know from anything but the James Bond franchise. I want to go beyond the years of fame celebrated as the deadliest secret agent, and explore the numerous years he spent trying to escape the Hollywood trap of typecasting. I want to look at Sean Connery as the artist who wouldn’t go down without a fight.

After the enormous success of Dr No, the first ever Bond entry, it’s fascinating to see where Connery decided to go. At a time when more lead actors began taking on more complex and transgressive roles, including the likes of Paul Newman with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Connery was smart enough to decide not to stick to the script, and try his hand at something a little less conventional than smoking cigarettes, sleeping with very attractive women and killing bad guys. By starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, he showed that his good looks can skillfully mask whatever bubbles inside of him. In this psychological thriller, Connery plays Mark, an elegant, respectful gentleman who eventually turns out to be a violent rapist, taking advantage of Tippi Hedren’s Marnie both physically as well as psychologically. The initial charm fades away and is replaced by an ominous air of threat. To viewers of the time, who were used to the likes of Rock Hudson, Gregory Peck or Cary Grant, familiar faces known for playing predictable, well intentioned characters, such a sudden, terrifying revelation came as a shock. The film resulted in mixed reviews. The violent sexual relationship between Mark and Marnie seemed to be too much for both audiences and critics, but the message Connery’s performance had conveyed was loud and clear: I will not be just another victim of the studio system. I will be my own master.

Marnie introduced a new dimension to Connery’s on-screen persona.

And so it was. After completing his spell as James Bond, and passing on the torch over to George Lazenby and Roger Moore, Connery was desperate to bite into meatier roles and wipe the slate clean. His work with Sidney Lumet is perhaps the most interesting chapter of Connery’s sprawling career and proof of what a great talent he was. Having collaborated with the likes of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and eventually, Al Pacino, Lumet had a reputation of being the best actor’s director. His focus on rehearsals and precise, almost ritualistic on-set direction was the key to granting Connery the freedom he needed to truly express his range as an actor. And perhaps that is what comes off as most evident and remarkable in Connery as an on-screen presence: his range. Utilizing his good looks to seduce the audience is one thing, but turning the tables around through humor that often resulted in outbursts of rage, indignation and shame is what, to me, put Sir Sean on the pedestal among the very best actors of his generation. Look no further than Lumet’s The Hill (1965) and The Offence (1973).

Connery’s excellent turn in Sindey Lumet’s convinct movie, The Hill.

Both films deal with the strength, and simultaneously, the fragility of the human spirit. The Hill, set in some godforsaken desert hole during WWII, tells the story of military prisoners struggling to stay alive due to the grueling and brutal drills carried out by a blood thirsty Sergeant. Connery plays one of the more rebellious prisoners, former sergeant major Roberts, who continues to stand up to the cruelty inflicted upon his fellow detainees. Yet our favorite Scotsman never tries to play the role with a holier-than-thou attitude. He plays him like a convict: a man scarred by his past, uncertain about his future, incapable of taming his violent instincts, yet unwilling to back down even in the face of the worst kinds of pain. Far from Steve McQueen’s idealistic version of a prisoner in The Great Escape, Connery once again knew what needed to be done to push aside the audience’s expectations and throw any preconceived labels or judgements out the window.

In The Offence, Connery gives arguably his best performance.

Two of his greatest anti-hero roles came in the troubled, nihilistic cinema of the 70s. His most remarkable collaboration with Lumet, The Offence is a deep dive into the twisted nature of violence, as Connery plays a police detective set on getting the truth out a suspect by any means necessary. The policeman, blinded by shock and trauma experienced after years and years of collecting dead bodies off the street, channels Connery’s own much talked about inner violent, brutish character. Although he presumably stands for what is morally good and right, his methods of interrogation are far from such ideals. After beating the suspect to a pulp, the detective realizes he’s become the very individual he spent his whole life chasing: his life thus is meaningless, torn apart by the appeal of violence, a statement that rings particularly true in the time and setting this movie was produced, and that without a doubt reveals some dark truths about what we, as viewers, consider to be entertainment and glamour.

The seductive nature of power in The Man Who Would Be King.

In The Man That Would Be King (1975), directed by John Huston and based on a Rudyard Kipling novella, we get a glimpse of the corruptible force of power as Connery plays a British Army officer set on becoming the king of an unexplored Oriental land. His initial fascination with adventure and his friendship with a fellow officer (played by Connery’s dear friend in real life, Sir Michael Caine) disappear once Connery’s protagonist discovers what power, in the form of a kingdom of devoted followers that see him as a divine figure meant to bring them salvation, truly tastes like. Connery once again plays this role with a mix of boyish humor and intimidating physicality that makes him hard to dislike, but equally hard to root for as he blindly heads for the inevitable fall from grace. Similarly to his character in the story, Connery walks a fine line between charm and terror, fun and cruelty, cunning instinct and blind ignorance. The eventual downfall is a tragic one, but Connery’s character walks toward it with the reassured step of a man who’s seen enough in life and knows that his time has come.

As Malone in The Untouchables.

Looking back on the career of a man who appeared in over one hundred films, we see what life is really made of: change. Connery’s skill in adapting to the times he lived in is a sight to behold. He knew how to respond to the sexual revolution of the 60s by acting on his sex appeal and his masculine features, the same way he knew how to meet the demands of the audiences of the 70s by playing characters that questioned the morality and ideals of the society these audiences belonged to. In the 80s and 90s, the age of blockbusters and action films, Connery continued his successful run by capitalizing on his larger-than-life persona and appearing in films like The Untouchables, Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, The Rock and Entrapment. He went from learning the craft from the likes of Hitchcock and Lumet to mentoring up-and-coming stars in Kevin Costner, Alec Baldwin and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And despite often falling victim to his own celebrity status, it is undeniable that Sir Sean Connery was one of the last members of a dying breed, one the likes of which we will sadly never see again.

The Devil All the Time: Confronting Evil the Wrong Way

With all the unspeakable tragedies and acts of evil currently stirring our world, it seems a movie like The Devil All the Time was inevitable. Movies, and particularly Netflix-produced ones that can reach a broader audience, are often good reminders of our present day affairs. Fictional worlds tend to cut deeper when they allude to events and characters reminiscent of their real life counterparts. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we learn from these worlds, but I would argue they help us further realize certain truths about the society we belong to, and the issues that come with it. At the same time, the conclusions drawn from these movies can feel quite underwhelming.
Considering the effort and talent put into Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time, released on Netflix this past month, I couldn’t help but feel like the film did a poor job of transmitting whatever message or idea it was trying to convey about evil. Thus, today I wanted to compare Campos’ latest feature with the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, as both movies treat evil in a similar fashion, however one does it considerably better than the other.

The Devil All The Time is a generational tale of violence.

The story of The Devil All the Time is a complex web of families torn apart by the brutal nature of mankind in the American Midwest. A war veteran returns home only to find himself haunted by the ghosts of the past that ultimately spur him onto a path of religiously-driven violence. This violence then is passed onto his son and the people around him. The world of The Devil All the Time is populated by men and women, housewives, preachers, cops and crooks, whose understanding of God and faith in general revolves completely around the notion of sacrifice by blood. By hurting others, these troubled characters are lead to believe in their own salvation. One of the recurring lines of this film, ”There’s a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there. You just got to pick the right time (to hurt them),” echoes ad nauseam, to the point that the movie itself becomes a tiresome cycle of endless violence committed by people whose traumatic past is the only reason they keep moving forward.

Soon, Tom Holland’s character in The Devil All the Time gives in to acts of evil too.

This is my major issue with the movie. It works only on a single level. It views the world from a single perspective, and never even dares to contradict this worldview by injecting it with a more sophisticated reflection other than that we are the products of our environment and there is no escaping it. And this, I find inexcusable. Because commenting on important matters such as evil, violence, treachery, manipulation, in the way that Campos tries to, is often the perfect way for sweeping such matters under the rug and labeling these movies as pure entertainment. Which is a shame, because if we look at No Country for Old Men, we see that cinema can make a difference with regard to how complex fictional worlds can be.

Bardem’s Chigurh as the unstoppable force of evil in No Country for Old Men.

Similarly to The Devil All the Time, the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner of 2007 is a tale about evil inevitably finding its way into society, and how the nature of this evil, seemingly so simple and primitive, makes it an unstoppable force, a force that perhaps we will never fully understand.
Both movies have evil men in them, men whose only drive is to hurt, kill and humiliate whatever and whoever stands in their way. The main difference, however, lies in the good characters that populate these movies. In Campos’ film, there isn’t any hope for anybody. Any signs of kindness are limited to the bare minimum, because the film wants to be consistent with its nihilistic outlook on life. Kindness equals weakness. Nothing is of value. Everything and everybody dies, ”You just got to pick the right time.”
On the other hand, No Country for Old Men, though it presents us with one of the most terrifying villains in movie history, Anton Chigurh, and a grim death-filled desert landscape where laws don’t apply to everyone the same way, it also gives us characters worth believing in. Llewelyn Moss, our unlucky protagonist who finds himself in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong and with someone else’s bagful of money in his lap, is still at the very core a good man, with dreams and aspirations of building a better, more secure life for himself and his wife, Carla Jean.
Tommy Lee Jones also plays a good character, Sheriff Bell, a character that for the majority of the movie tries to grasp the extent to which evil men like Anton are willing to go for the sake of what? Money? Drugs? Fame? He can’t put a pin on it, and that is what scares him – a good, lawful man – the most.

Llewelyn and Carla Jean have each other.

And that is I think where the main difference lies between these two equally competently made films. Whereas The Devil All the Time states loud and clear that there is simply no escaping evil that surrounds you, evil that you’re born into, as Tom Holland’s protagonist, the son of a suicidal war veteran and the step brother of a girl that died at the hands of a crooked preacher, is eventually driven to inflicting the same kind of merciless violence on others, No Country for Old Men refuses to fall into a similar trap. The film takes a moral stand through its literary opening written by Cormac McCarthy (the author of the novel), when Sheriff Bell narrates about the time he put a man on the electric chair and the man, a cold blooded murderer, till the very end continued to say he would happily kill again if he were given the chance to. And in the face of this unflinching evil that has no head nor tail to make of, Bell openly admits, ” I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. You can say it’s my job to fight it but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say, okay, I’ll be part of this world.

Tommy Lee Jones as the local sheriff trying to make sense of all this madness.

No Country for Old Men works as a moral tale because not only does it present the crumbling reality of a dying breed of men not accustomed to this kind of senseless violence and inexplicable evil – it also shows that there is a way of avoiding it, that sometimes, by not succumbing to the way of the gun, we may be able to go out on our own terms, with pride and dignity. Is this argument a little too far-fetched? A little too romanticized? Perhaps, but good movies are meant to give us options, not force us into a single, badly constructed worldview. The nihilism and dread of The Devil All the Time serve little to no purpose other than to tell a grim story of hopelessness and despair motivated by religious misconceptions. Whatever Campos and Pollock (author of the novel) tried to do in adapting the book to the screen doesn’t work. Because yes, evil exists. And yes, bad people do bad things. And sometimes good people are forcefully driven to similar acts, but if we look carefully, there should always be, no matter how slim or faint, a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.

In No Country for Old Men everything comes at a price. Especially Mariachi bands.

Outcasts and Rejects: The Cinema of Kelly Reichardt

One of the most impressive and unique voices of contemporary cinema belongs to Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker who strongly believes in the complexity of mundane life as we know it. The simple acts of waking up, getting to work, and having a warm meal before heading back to bed, to Reichardt, constitute an endless combination of interesting, sometimes even life-changing episodes. Her work is spotted with instances of dark humor stemming from the inevitable daily malfunctions to which we have become used to in real life but not so much in cinema. After all, movies have always been labelled as entertainment meant to do just that: entertain us from our everyday existence. Reichardt, however, in the similar vein of the forefather of documentary naturalism, Robert Bresson, who was famously obsessed with singular actions carried out by his protagonists such as a man tying his shoelaces, a woman sticking a pin into her hair, or a pickpocket’s hands reaching into someone’s else coat, wants her audience to grasp the surreal consequences that derive from our everyday behavior. In other words, everything that we do carries its own little impact. A domino effect of some kind.

The barren rail yards of Northern Oregon.

Her film, Wendy and Lucy, is the prime example of Reichardt’s trademark fascination with the mundane as it centers around Wendy, a twenty-something-year-old woman on her way to Alaska with Lucy, her dog, as the only companion. Wendy ends up stranded in a small town in Northern Oregon, homeless, when she loses Lucy due to a set of unfortunate circumstances. Again, notice how I say circumstances. Wendy and Lucy is filled with them. Not only is our protagonist unable to pay for dog food which leads her to shoplift a can at the local grocery store which ultimately gets her arrested, she also loses the car on which her entire journey depended on due to an inevitable mechanical fault and is unable to provide the dog pound with a contact number in case they find Lucy because she doesn’t have a cell phone. Everywhere she looks, there are walls. Wendy is helpless. But she fights.

Wendy and Lucy looking for a way out.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Reichardt does not succumb to the needs of modern day audiences in the form of caped villains or grand action set-pieces à la Mission Impossible. Her characters don’t have superpowers, guns, or large sums of money. They don’t have to, as they’re already busy fighting the challenges posed by everyday life. Challenges that involve having enough money to dial a number from a payphone, waiting in the freezing cold for the auto shop to open, finding shelter in the restroom of a gas station, and so on. These are problems that Reichardt’s protagonists, like Wendy, experience on an individual level, but that end up translating on a much more universal scale. The film’s small-town world of Nothern Oregon stricken by the 2007-08 financial crisis, with its barren rail yards and desolate mill towns is the same world that most of us know of due to similar, unfortunate circumstances. It is a world where, as the kind-hearted security guard that Wendy is lucky enough to befriend, points out ”You can’t get an address without an address, a job without a job, a telephone without a telephone number. It’s all fixed.

Through her focus on details, Reichardt builds expansive worlds we can relate to.

Gathered around a bonfire, Wendy and a group of similar-minded outcasts discuss their shared feelings of living in a society that is moving on without them, leaving them to their fate, and their desire to escape somewhere far away, somewhere where the rules of the regular world don’t apply. They sit in the dark, illuminated by the flames of the fire. Reichardt films this scene using natural lighting, thus we find ourselves engulfed in the same darkness as Wendy and the others. As an audience we are forced to sit with this community of rejects and absorb their simple yet vital problems. Wendy’s only comfort, after all, is a stained pillow and an old, raggedy blanket. After losing Lucy, preoccupied and afraid, she calls her brother in Indiana. His only reply is, what do you want from me?
But what might sound like a misery tale of a homeless girl suffering on end, is in fact a more universal portrait of a nation, a cultural mindset and a generation affected by the inevitable consequences of our progress as a society and the realization that we’re all in this together. It’s one big melting pot.

Wendy never gives up.

What I admire the most about Kelly Reichardt’s filmography is her unwavering commitment to telling personal stories mostly centered around individuals who don’t necessarily fit our pre-conceived idea of a movie character. More often than not, her films focus on the cruel twists of fate, on the helpless nature of humans in the grand scheme of things. Yet simultaneously, these stories are more than that. They’re about the strength of the human spirit. Because how in the world could a young, single, homeless woman like Wendy make it this far in her journey had it not been for her incredible strength of character? Who wouldn’t give up when faced with the loss of their only companion, lack of a roof over their head and enough money for Snickers bar?
There is real ugliness in Wendy and Lucy. There is all kinds of poverty, alcoholism, loneliness. But Reichardt, through her fixation with little details, finds also signs of subtle beauty: the sense of community among those who struggle to make a living out of returning steel cans to the recycling center, the unexpected friendship between an elderly security guard and our protagonist, fleeting moments of peace like when Wendy is in a cafe’ writing something down and Reichardt fixes her camera on a young man reading a paperback of Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey’s magnum opus set in Oregon. It’s again, a simple matter of details.

We are all part of the same melting pot.

Casino Royale: Reinventing a Franchise

Hollywood loves a good franchise, but for the most part the chances of a franchise being consistently good are very slim. The Bond franchise is a prime example of this. From its humble beginnings in the 1960s, a period that saw a Scotsman in Sean Connery rise in the ranks and become one of the most recognizable faces around AND one of the highest grossing movie stars of all time, to a series of misfires and miscast names throughout the 70s and 80s, and finally to Pierce Brosnan stealing the show in GoldenEye just for his later entries in the Bond catalog to fail both critically and commercially; similarly to Batman, the James Bond franchise was on its last legs as it entered the new millennium. To everyone’s surprise Casino Royale turned out to be a major sensation. A new star was born in Daniel Craig and James Bond was alive and well, and perhaps truer to the Ian Fleming’s original character than ever before.

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The first time we see Craig as 007.

How Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell, changed the way we perceive and sympathize with Bond as a fleshed out character instead of a cardboard cut-out is still to this day an incredible achievement in storytelling and action filmmaking.
The most obvious aspect of Casino Royale is, of course, how blatantly indifferent it is to all the previous franchise entries. The film opens in black and white, suggesting a flashback sequence from 007’s first mission for the agency, with Bond literally smashing a guy’s face into a sink and violently shoving his face into said sink full of water until the nameless bad guy stops breathing. The scene is brutal, grim and openly demonstrative about the movie’s further intentions in establishing Bond as a atypical character.
Unlike Casino Royale’s predecessors, where the movie usually opened with an intense set-up that ultimately ended in either a sarcastic comment made by the agent himself or a funny set of circumstances that would serve to fuel the movie’s plot, Campbell’s film never attempts to emphasize humor the same way. After all, this is 2006 we’re talking about; the era of clunky one-liners and testosterone-filled actioners à la True LiesSpeed or The Rock is over, and even the most generic actions films take themselves seriously both in style and execution. Humor in Casino Royale comes at an expense and this is where things start to get interesting.

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The gruesome, black-and-white opener sets the tone for the franchise’s re-birth.

I fail to recall the last time I had seen Bond truly suffer as a human. And I don’t only mean physical pain because we all remember the fair share of painful adversities that Bond has had to face throughout the years (spiders, lasers, waterboarding, gunshot wounds, etc), I mean real, psychological pain, pain that exposes the character’s (up until then) few weaknesses. In Die Another Day, Brosnan’s last catastrophic outing as 007, Bond was indeed held prisoner by North Koreans and tortured numerous times, but the pain the character underwent was never given enough weight and was soon dismissed with Bond ultimately walking away a free man in a prisoner exchange.
In Casino Royale, however, our protagonist feels, just like anyone of us. Craig’s Bond is made of flesh and bone and is aware of his own physical limitations. M labels him a blunt instrument, a cold, calculated weapon executing the agency’s orders. But we soon learn that our protagonist, despite his best efforts to fight them, is a prisoner of his own feelings. And that is, I think, Casino Royale’s main strength: the movie is driven by our and everyone else’s preconceived idea that Bond is an emotionless machine working against the movie’s own initiative to mix things up and shape Bond into a more human version of the world famous agent with a license to kill.

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Mads Mikkelsen perfectly encapsulates a Bond villain.

Casino Royale knows what it is up against, namely a whole catalog of movies and fans of these movies that value Bond for his cartoonish appearance. And when the movie’s main plot kicks in, Royale does everything in its power to build a fun, engaging storyline that serves to de-construct and re-shape James Bond as we know him.
Rewatching the film with a friend who had not seen the movie, I noticed how she kept waiting for the eventual one night-stand or (as we like to call them) Bond girl, to come in, have sex with our protagonist and leave him in matter of nano seconds, only to be swept away by the franchise’s most real and heartbreaking romance. Because even though there is a scene where Bond, tied up and naked, gets his testicles crushed with the swing of a heavy rope (and the pain is both visible and audible) by the movie’s main antagonist, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen, the definition of a Bond villain), the hurt that our protagonist turns out to suffer most is the feeling of pure grief, and the hopeless realization that he is forever bound to the memory of Vesper, a woman he tragically lost and who sacrificed her own life for him. Yes, him. The worthless machine serving the agency’s interests. A stone-cold killer with no sense of remorse. The blunt instrument meant to be used to bash someone’s head in.

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007 naked and exposed.

Reinventing the Bond franchise was a necessary step for mainstream, crowd-pleasing cinema and resulted in Hollywood re-establishing the importance of high quality action movies familiar with the definition of ”character development.” The Bond franchise finally moved away from conservative studio shoots and CGI effects and decided to make fight scenes practical, aggressive and turn our protagonist into an underdog with real weaknesses to be exploited by stronger enemies. Too often had we seen Bond go through enemies like papier-mâché, sometimes not even bothered to look their way before killing them. Casino Royale changed the way Bond inflicts violence upon others and the way others inflict violence upon him. All of a sudden we are watching a character whose prime interest is not getting laid, but embracing the love of a woman and considering the possibility of early retirement.
Of course, nothing is perfect and the underwhelming follow-up to Casino Royale, 2008’s Quantum of Solace proved once again how hard it is to be consistently good as a franchise. But at least we now know that Bond breathes, sweats and bleeds like any other man. He is touchable.

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Casino Royale gives Bond a reason to exist.

Musica, Maestro: Remembering Ennio Morricone

We find ourselves today, a few hours after Morricone’s passing, stripped of the presence of a man who was capable of amplifying emotions like no other.
Having composed film music for over 60 years, Morricone leaves us with a catalog not of films, but emotions. Rarely have I felt so connected to someone who, like most film composers, has his work hidden behind the images on screen, often subject to editing and directing choices that can influence the final outcome. His music not only belonged to the film it was composed for, but it elevated the entire experience to the point where you found yourself coming back to the music rather than the film itself.
In his monumental collaborations with childhood friend Sergio Leone, Morricone found the winning formula that would later on be used for the majority of his career. He, along with Leone, understood that film music can not only serve as a tool meant to convey emotions/mood of a scene; it can also tell the story of the scene.
In a way, Morricone was like an assistant director. Leone would ask him to compose the music beforehand, then he’d take the recordings and play them as loud as possible on each film set, whether it was A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in America, Leone knew that in order to obtain the best possible results in setting up a scene it was up to him to accommodate Morricone’s music, and not the other way around. It was up to him to understand the composer’s intentions and direct accordingly, in order to achieve a truly ecstatic feeling of harmony between the images on screen and the sound behind them. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly we witness a four-minute-long scene of Eli Wallach running around a graveyard, stricken with feverish greed, in search of gold. The music accompanying this scene, the famous Ecstasy of Gold, is the only element used to make this four-minute-long sequence of a man running around in circles work. And boy, does it work.

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Morricone and Leone: two childhood friends who changed cinema together.

Morricone made music meant to last forever. He was a firm believer in the power of cinema and considered film music to be crucial. A time vehicle that would allow future generations to look back and associate music with images, and vice versa. Time and time again, I found myself wanting to participate in the actions depicted on-screen because of Morricone’s score behind each of these actions; I wanted to attack Al Capone’s men whilst riding on horseback in The Untouchables, just as I wanted to duel with Henry Fonda’s baddie in Once Upon a Time in the West, or find redemption the same way De Niro’s character did in The Mission.
Whether it was his use of a plethora of instruments including harmonicas, electric guitars, horns and clarinets, or his inclusion of sounds like his infamous use of whistles, whips and water, Morricone was an artist with a complete understanding of what makes us human. His belief in conveying a full range of emotions through sound and images is an incomparable contribution to our existence. We may not realize it, but the way we respond to movies and the way we incorporate music into our daily lives is in large part thanks to artists like Morricone. By not separating himself from his own work, but by bringing his own dreams, memories and beliefs into his music, Morricone amplified the importance of sound in film and helped us further realize that at the end of the day we’re not all that different from each other. Our lives and lives of our beloved characters are bound to meet at some point. It’s okay to seek redemption. It’s okay to accept the past. It’s okay to want to overcome pain. It’s okay to want to love and be loved. Yes, it’s okay.

Farewell, maestro.

 

Raise the Red Lantern: Generational Misogyny

There are few films that have had enough courage to address misogyny in all its complexity the way Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern did back in 1991. I use the word complexity because Hollywood has had a long history of avoiding the multi-faceted nature of misogyny in favor of a more narrow minded depiction of this cultural phenomenon.
Very often movies (starting in the 1940s with Mildred Pierce) failed to contribute to a larger, more political discussion for fear of audiences’ and studios’ backlash. American cinema, especially in the times of studio control with the likes of MGM, United Artists, Universal, RKO literally taking apart each film that contained a grain of avant-garde politics in them for the sake of keeping the audiences dumb and happy. Many great films suffered this way, most notably Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which initially was conceived as a dark examination of racism and corruption in small-town America, but ended up being put together as a more conventional film noir meant to be sold to the masses. To be outspoken in Hollywood can often mean getting crucified by a politically-safe industry.
Fortunately, on the other side of the world, directors like Zhang Yimou, a member of the Fifth Generation cinema that emerged from Maoist China following the Cultural Revolution, did not share the same scruples and did not back down even in the face of a totalitarian regime. His film, Raise the Red Lantern, is to this day a remarkable achievement of subtle storytelling and powerful imagery concerning China’s abusive traditional and misogynistic social structure that, turns out, is not so different from our own.

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A young girl must accept the fate forced upon her.

Misogyny is an oppressive system. An entrapment. The same way Yimou’s film opens with a 19-year-old girl, Songlian, who after her father’s death is forced to quit university and dedicate the rest of her life to being a master’s concubine. The year is 1920 and the custom states that the girl, in order to support herself and her family, must abandon home and become another man’s wife (he already has three).
With tears streaming down her face she accepts her fate and enters the wealthy Chen residence, surrounded by tall, stone walls, just like a prison. Here, she is treated like a lady and served by a maid whose ambition is to become a mistress in her own right. The other concubines know fully well that the new concubine will be the master’s favorite for quite some time. Every day they anxiously await the master’s decision regarding which concubine he will choose to spend the night with (the lucky one is signaled by having red lanterns lit in front of her house). The custom states that the lucky one will be treated better than the others. The exclusive treatment involves the opportunity to deviate from the day’s menu of foods, asking for an endless series of foot massages and obviously, not spending the night alone, which within these grey walls can feel like the worst of punishments.

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The master is never clearly seen, but his power is always felt.

Yimou smartly approaches the theme of misogyny by focusing on the alienated bodies of the four concubines. The master is rarely seen on screen, and in the few instances that he appears in the frame, he is shot from a distance or obscured by a dim light or is out of focus. His power and influence over the lives of these four women is felt rather than seen.
The concubines, on the other hand, are very physical and vulnerable in their presentation. The first one is old and wrinkled, the second one fragile and preoccupied, the third one beautiful and seductive, and Songlian, the fourth one, naive and innocent. Their oppression at the hands of the centuries-old traditions under which the Chen residence operates (and the entire Chinese society, for that matter) lies in this presentation: reduced solely to their physical appearance and their obedience to the master’s commands and needs. They are expected to express themselves only in bed, when the master allows for conversation. Otherwise, the concubines are forced to live their lives in utter silence, awaiting the day’s verdict on whether concubine number one, two, three or four will get to delight the master with her body, and who knows, perhaps even with a successful pregnancy (of a boy, obviously).

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Songlian’s actions lead to dangerous consequences.

As the film progresses, we start to notice a pattern. Misogyny and the patriarchal oppression that have been carried out in the Chen residence for centuries on end is implemented by the concubines themselves. Through the acceptance of their fate and the act of seeking fulfillment to the master’s sexual needs, the concubines become complicit in their oppression. Because their sole purpose in life lies in offering their body to master Chen, they are driven to acts of pure hatred and hostility toward one another. Lies are spread around the residence, rumors are raised to favor one concubine over the other, and there are even stories of two concubines from past generations hanging themselves out of sheer desperation in a small tool shed.
As mere objects in a male-dominated society, these women find themselves actively hurting each other, accepting their positions and further deepening their own oppression. Sex is never shown on screen. It is simply implied, but not as an act of love and intimacy, but as an act of transaction: the master’s satisfaction and assertion of his control and the woman’s acknowledgment of her own worth.

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The Chen residence is full of broken dreams and deadly secrets.

The ambitions of these concubines never rise over and above the day ahead of them. Their survival is never guaranteed, as it is never a sure bet that the master will select the same woman for a number of consecutive nights. The eldest of the four, a shy yet firm woman of around fifty has become used to this oppressive state of existence, while the other three are tormented by the simple thought of being overlooked by their master. The lack of a foot massage and lack of say in the creation of the day’s menu signify lack of self-worth and utter humiliation in the face of society. Songlian’s initial look of innocence is replaced with the cunning instinct of someone is who fighting for survival, no matter the cost or consequences of her actions. Faking a potential pregnancy or spreading falsehoods about the other concubines is the only way out of this trap. It at least guarantees you a few days of comfort, perhaps even a month of delicious meals and healing massages. But the only liberation beyond these walls takes place in the master’s bedroom. The only acknowledgment of their existence are the red lanterns hanging outside their house.

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As the film progresses, the initial warm look is replaced with an equally cold one.

The dreams of the maid whose ambition was to become a mistress are ultimately crushed. The hierarchy among women in the Chen residence closely resembles the hierarchy of a totalitarian regime, perhaps the one under which this movie was made and consequently banned for a number of years. Whether it is a cry for help or a manifesto against the powers that be, Raise the Red Lantern shows how simple it is to effectively oppress other human beings through the implementation of customs and traditions. Their morality is never questioned, but rather taken for granted and set aside in favor of their legality. As a result of this, the protagonists of this film are simultaneously presented as victims and perpetrators of each other’s fate. They suffer and inflict suffering on others in the name of a misogynistic society that values their bodies and their silence above all. Their existence never leaves the bedroom, and if it does, it will not go unpunished.

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Crushed dreams in the form of burning lanterns.

Bamboozled: Social Commentary Done Right

There is very few filmmakers today who are able to express genuine outrage in their movies without making it political and needlessly alienating part of their audience. Social commentary is hard to accomplish, mostly due to the constantly shifting media landscape and society. People’s sensitivities and priorities change over time. Audiences have grown to become more ambitious and selective due to the vast variety of content that is out there for them to grab and consume. Some stories are not considered relevant anymore and it’s often a simple matter of turning the other way and losing interest over a particular topic.
Hollywood has a history of wrestling with this kind of social commentary and more often then not, the film industry has failed to address important matters in a compelling, timely fashion. What was once considered social commentary done right, today is a pile of toothless remakes and reboots in the vein of Adam McKay’s horrendously bad and vapid Vice, the prime example of a recent movie aiming for the stars with its commentary on corrupt, capitalist governments and ending up in the garbage because of how genuinely distant it felt from its audience. Hollywood’s status of privilege and wealth often gets in the way of capturing the reality most people live in and thus doing justice to the struggle many experience on a daily basis. Most filmmakers today are not angry enough, and if they are, they are incapable of expressing that anger in a way that makes audiences relate with it. But it didn’t use to be like that. Once a upon a time, there was Spike Lee, carrying the torch of outrage, and his underappreciated entry into the new millennium, Bamboozled from 2000, is an example of accomplished social commentary.

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Spike Lee’s decision to film most of Bamboozled using cheap camcorders strips the movie of any glamour.

Spike Lee is known for a lot of things. He’s a renowned basketball fan, an outspoken civil rights activist, a former film student of Martin Scorsese, and above all, he’s got a history of being mad at America and addressing this simmering anger and frustration through his movies. Ending the 80s with his most popular work, Do the Right Thing where he tackled street violence, and going into the 90s by dishing out the likes of Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers and Summer of Sam, that saw him at the receiving end of an endless stream of threats on his life and his loved ones’, Spike finally came full circle and got his long-deserved Oscar for writing BlacKkKlansman, a movie that re-captured the Spike we all knew and loved – mad Spike, a Spike that does not take no for answer and will let everyone know about it.
As I revisited  Spike Lee’s filmography, I happened to stumble upon Bamboozled, a satire about American television and mediatized racism that seems to have gone under the radar of most audiences since its initial release in 2000. Thanks to the restoration by Criterion, Bamboozled is now available to everyone and is definitely an important piece to the director’s body of work and a vital commentary that is just as relevant today as it was twenty years ago, if not more. The film’s premise is very basic: an African-American TV network writer, Pierre Delacroix, is given the task to make an outrageous show in order to raise viewership in the light of the emergence of Internet, video-games and TV packages responsible for killing traditional television audiences. The show is a blackface minstrel show, an insane concept for daytime TV, but also, in Delacroix’s mind, a strong protest against the powers that be. The show is bound to fail, and yet, to everyone’s surprise, it becomes a huge hit.

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Mantan literally tap-dancing for the white TV executive is one of the film’s most thought-provoking scenes.

Riffing off of Sidney Lumet’s landmark film, Network, Spike Lee’s outrage at America’s cultural core involving a long and prominent history of racist mediatization of African Americans shows the risks that audiences run whenever they press play. Whereas in Network, the truths and ramblings of a failed TV anchor become a national sensation, in Bamboozled the televised manifesto meant to address the evil of American media is twisted into a family show for mostly white audiences. Whereas Sidney Lumet’s film was a reaction to current-day developments (in 1976, obviously) within American TV audiences and their relation to mediatized violence, Bamboozled is much larger and dense in scope: it is an uncompromising attack on the past, present and future of American culture.
Conceived out of spite for his boss who frequently rejected any of his scripts portraying African Americans in a positive light, Delacroix’s blackface minstrel show is filled with racist jokes, insults and the worst kind of stereotypes, all meant to cause a national uproar. The show’s ambition does not go beyond making fun of the two protagonists, ”two Negroes on a watermelon patch” called Mantan, the show’s tap-dancing star and  his friend, Sleep ‘n Eat. The sole mission for this show is to fail. Big time. Get the numbers of viewers up, ”feed the idiot box” and get off the air. This way, Delacroix hopes, he will have been able to finally express himself artistically and make his outrage against American TV a topic of discussion for the general public. However, as I previously mentioned, the show becomes a big hit, and Delacroix’s ideas get taken away from him and manipulated by a roomful of white writers whose job it is to please the audience and turn the show into a product.

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Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat become America’s new darlings.

If you thought Spike Lee was pissed in Do the Right Thing, you got another thing coming. In Bamboozled, Spike’s outrage is palpable and contagious. He is mad at a number of things but most of all he is mad at our tendency of imprisoning ourselves within the confines and limits set by what we are fed from a cultural standpoint. Delacroix’s blackface show has no right to exist. It has no right to live and breathe within most American households. Its primitive, evil depiction of African Americans should rightly be punished. And yet, in a country built on slavery and the Three-Fifth Compromise (three-fifths of a person) this is not the case. Even the most hateful form of expression against a whole race becomes a product for daytime TV that audiences can enjoy over a cup of warm cocoa and a bowl of cereal before heading out to work. Soon enough, billboards on Times Square start showing the highly controversial blackface. The two protagonists, Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat become cultural phenomenons. Audience members start showing up to tapings of the program wearing blackface and proudly screaming ”I’m a nigger!” on live TV. Through this grotesque, on-the-nose vision of fading morals and a broken down system that thrives on and rewards bigotry and racism, Spike Lee finds himself attacking the core of America’s cultural structure.

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Jada Pinkett-Smith delivers a brilliant performance as a black woman trying to maintain dignity in a world that values everything but dignity.

And here is why Spike’s social commentary is far superior than anyone else’s today: he refuses to make excuses for all involved. Everyone is complicit. From the TV executive that tries to convince Delacroix that he has as much of a right to say nigger as him because his wife is black and his kids are biracial, to the audiences tuning in at home and buying the show’s merchandise, to the black community that is too comfortable and too complacent to act, and those who act, act without thinking rationally, to Delacroix himself who becomes his own worst enemy and starts losing sight of what the show’s initial message was. Because this is what social commentary should be. It should be a reminder that takes no prisoners, a barrage of smart critique that makes you think well after the film is over. Bamboozled did just that. It left me feeling dirty and tired. Complicit. Complicit because I took for granted the misrepresentation of African American culture in Gone with the Wind. Complicit because too many times I’ve said ”It’s just a cartoon,” or ”In those days it was different.” Complicit because I did not do enough research or was too lazy to inform myself. Therefore, one of the people Spike was talking to through Bamboozled, believe it or not, was me. And you.

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Are these really only cartoons? What is their purpose?

Going into more detail about this film would certainly spoil the fun and strip the film of its dense texture (there is really too much to talk about. Spike goes after everybody: Hollywood, celebrities, politicians, misogynists, advertisers, and on and on…).
At the end of the day, social commentary is about provoking the audience rather than teasing. And more often than not, Hollywood settled on teasing. Just think about it. The wildly acclaimed Best Picture winner of 2018 (the same year Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was in the awards race), Green Book, the true story of an African American artist was ultimately manipulated and turned by a team of white writers, producers and director into a family friendly story about the friendship between a black man and a white man. This is what Spike Lee is talking about. This is what we are up against. And in the case of Green Book, Maurice Shirley’s own family spoke out against the misrepresentation of Shirley’s life for the sake of ‘teasing’ (and pleasing) the audience. This is the way it goes. By simply purchasing a ticket to go see a film like Green Book or renting it on a streaming platform, we are complicit in this misrepresentation.
Bamboozled reminds us that these movies, these pieces of culture matter. They have an impact on our perception of reality. By watching movies, reading books, catching up on our favorite shows, we learn about history, day-to-day affairs and our worldview is shaped according to this content.
Bamboozled tells us to ”wake the fuck up.” We can still turn things around.

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”Everyone wants to be a…!”

Werner Herzog: The Power of Observation

How do we place ourselves in someone else’s shoes without intruding? Films are meant to actively participate, invading someone’s privacy, getting closer to the action, to the reality of someone’s life, their struggles, beliefs, and so on. It is undoubtedly a challenge that cinema has faced since birth. How to present a lifestyle in its full complexity without being offensive? How can we learn from merely observing? Even the best filmmakers have had difficulties answering these questions. Werner Herzog is known for intrusive, often manipulative style of documentary filmmaking. In numerous documentaries he openly staged various scenarios to fit his narrative (most notably in Bells from the Deep and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) and he often appears on screen as an intrusive stranger, almost like a detective sniffing around a crime scene (in Into the Abyss he literally questions witnesses to a murder and in The Grizzly Man he compulsively inspects Timothy Treadwell’s posthumous belongings).
However, I found interesting how different and yet just as revolutionary his approach was in one of his earliest documentaries, Land of Silence and Darkness from 1971, a film that I believe shifted the focus of documentaries from the filmmaker – the explorer, the conqueror, the protagonist who, like an anthropologist, immerses himself in another world, another culture, another lifestyle – to the subject(s).

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Fini, our protagonist, with her translator, before flying for the first time.

One of Herzog’s earliest adventures behind the camera is the study of Fini Straubinger, a deaf and blind woman and her work on behalf other deaf-blind people. Fini is an old woman – she suffered what would become a life-long impediment when she was a teenager and as a result was bed ridden for 30 long years, isolated from the outside world. Her mission is to relate with others who are in a similar situation, break the barrier of sound and vision and help them understand that there is a whole community of people just like them. That they’re not alone. The documentary follows Fini and her translator as they travel around Germany meeting and relating with those who have been institutionalized or abandoned by their families or who simply don’t have anyone to share their pain with. The camera witnesses as Fini embarks on her first airplane flight, visits a zoo, explores a botanic garden, organizes a poetry reading with fellow deaf-blind people and attends a learning session for deaf-blind children.

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Fini shows others that they’re not alone in this silence and darkness.

The secret in this film lies in its simplicity. This simplicity stems from the full belief in the power of observation. Herzog observes. He does not act. Does not try to intervene or modify the narrative. He stands behind the camera and follows along as Fini and other deaf-blind people make sense of this terrifying world. It is terrifying indeed. We may not realize it, but Fini and others do. Speeding cars that cannot be seen, thunderstorms that cannot be heard… the world these people live in is truly the land of silence and darkness, filled with angst, uncertainty and terror.
But instead of going in this direction, Herzog perseveres, showing us how these victims of cruel fate go through life by embracing the unknown and painting their own canvas their own way.  In the botanic garden, the group of deaf-blind visitors touch and feel rows of cactus plants. Their palms caress the spikes and as they do so, we see them react in awe. Tall, lean plants with spikes? How marvelous. How unsettling and marvelous at the same time. In the zoo, the playfulness of a baby chimpanzee overwhelms them. So does the curious and kind touch of the elephant’s trunk.

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The soft, kind breathing of an animal.

But perhaps, the most moving scene of all is the scene where Fini meets with a deaf-blind boy, Vladimir, aged 22, abandoned by his guardians and left in an institution. The boy has never been looked after properly. He can hardly chew food. His movements are uncoordinated. His body deformed by abuse suffered in the past. Fini places his hand in her hand and begins to communicate with him by stroking his head. The boy initially is wary of this strange and unusual soft and warm thing touching the top of his head. But as the scene goes on, he grows fond of it and insists on keeping Fini’s hand in his. Then, a radio is brought into the room. A radio? I asked myself, but he cannot hear. How is he going to enjoy it?
The camera keeps still as the boy’s hands begin to recreate the shape of the object. They move across and feel the antenna, and finally land on top of the speakers, from which a pop tune is playing. All of a sudden, he takes the radio and clutches it in his arms like his life depended on it. Then, as if in a state of pure bliss, Vladimir produces a faint but generous smile. A smile that can only inspire us to imagine what it must feel like to be Vladimir at that very moment.
It is in this particular scene that I thought myself in amazement, This is the power of observation. Had Herzog tried to cut away from the scene or shift his attention to something else, Vladimir’s smile would have been lost forever. Instead, whatever he was feeling at that particular moment in time, as he held on to that magnificent invention we call radio, was expressed through that smile and recorded in this movie for us, people like me, to see and experience, each one of us their own, personal way. Vladimir may not be alive anymore, as the fate of the people presented in this movie has not been clarified since, but his smile, through Herzog’s camera, is alive and well.

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Fini and Vladimir meet for the first time.

Film, like any other art form and generally man’s quest for meaning (just grab the first history book off your shelf), has always been mostly about intervention, transgression and manipulation. And Herzog, the man responsible for dragging a steamboat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, releasing thousands of live rats in the streets of Delft to film a scene in Nosferatu, and manipulating his entire cast and crew into almost killing each other like the characters in Aguirre, The Wrath of God, is the prime example of this notion.
However, what he did in Land of Silence and Darkness, a delicately told story about a community of disadvantaged individuals, is show us that choosing the other path, remaining invisible and steering clear of crossing boundaries that should not be crossed, can sometimes be much more insightful and rewarding. By purely observing the struggle Fini and her friends have to face each time they wake up we see beyond it. We see a struggle that if approached with the right mindset, like Fini does, can turn into the most beautiful of adventures. The adventure of discovering the world, bit by bit. Whether by touching  the spikes of a cactus plant, or feeling every branch of a cherry tree, or caressing the hairy back of a baby chimpanzee, the life these people live and the way they experience it opens for us a new way of looking at things. The details that we take for granted, through Herzog’s observing eye, become the subjects of so many feelings these people experience. Their lives, despite the silence and darkness, are rich. Richer than most.

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To truly make sense of this world, you have to feel it first.

Two Popes: The Epidemic of Bad Screenwriting

Two old guys sitting in dresses talking about God. This is, word for word, how Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of last year’s Oscar-nominated Two Popes, described his film that retells in a fictionalized way the relationship between Pope Benedict and future Pope Francis. And perhaps the problem starts here. At this very shallow and nauseatingly vague and hip (because, let’s face it, how can you otherwise sell this movie to younger audiences?) premise. Amidst the on-going Coronavirus, there is another epidemic that is currently working its way into Hollywood. Its symptoms can be found in Two Popes. Bad screenwriting is nothing new. Like in any other art form there are those who are better at it and those who still have some catching up to do. However, we live in a time where bad screenwriting is being actively rewarded, both critically and financially. And Fernando Meirelles’ Two Popes, written by Anthony McCarten, is the prime example of a product that is being sold to masses, neatly wrapped in gift wrap by the likes of Netflix and Amazon, despite some serious flaws that should not go unnoticed.

On the surface, Two Popes is just that: a fictionalized retelling of conversations held between Pope Benedict, here labelled as the conservative, and future Pope Francis, here labelled as the progressive of the two. The film follows the two men of God as they clash with their beliefs. One argues that God never changes. The other one says the opposite. One fails to see the point in watching a football game. The other one is a fanatic of the sport. And so on, and so on. Rinse and repeat. There is nothing wrong with what I just described and the movie does a fairly good job of establishing the two clashing personalities in the opening half hour.
Pope Francis, here still called by his last name, Bergoglio, is the man of the people. A humble preacher who dresses like the villagers he blesses on a casual Sunday morning in some God-forsaken little Argentinian town. Pope Benedict, on the other hand, values comfort and fashion, and spends most of his time in his holiday mansion by the lake. This rather obvious distinction between the two is what screenwriter Anthony McCarten wants us to recognize before we dive into their relationship once they meet to discuss their differences and the eventual resignation on the part of Pope Benedict. And here is where the problems start.

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The two popes sharing a pizza.

McCarten has a history of screenwriting ”indifference” with a resume that includes The Theory of EverythingThe Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. All of his films are based on real people, all of his films have granted each leading man an Oscar (Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking, Gary Oldman for Winston Churchill and Rami Malek for Freddie Mercury) and all of his films assume the same attitude in the face of clashing personalities, beliefs and agendas – indifference.
Here is the man who turned Hawking’s life of struggle and adversity into a romantic dramedy without any real understanding of his relationship with his wife, Jane Hawking. Here is the man who failed to add any clarity or complexity to Churchill’s decision-making in the so-called darkest hour. Here is the man who instead of capturing the vitality and creativity of one of history’s greatest rockstars went for the most obvious, formulaic rise-and-fall scenario. Having said this, Two Popes had a real chance of being made into something fresh and unique. The supposed meetings between the two clergymen never really took place. Pope Benedict and Francis met only briefly on three occasions and their conversations had not been recorded or transcribed in any form.
This uncharted territory presented many interesting opportunities for a capable screenwriter. After all, the Catholic Church has been at the heart of most modern discussion panels; its existence, its benefits and threats. And under Pope Benedict, the Catholic Church suffered greatly in terms of image: sex scandals, investigations, tabloid headlines, you name it. This had potential. If handled well enough, a movie like Two Popes could have sparked these debates even further and put more question marks to an already muddled landscape of current affairs.
Instead, Two Popes comes off as an innocent, feel-good comedy with flashes of drama (mostly revolving around Bergoglio’s past during Argentina’s dark years of dictatorship), something you’d watch with your parents in-between binge-watching sessions of Sex Education and Narcos.

Saved by two miraculous performances in Hopkins and Pryce as Benedict and Francis, respectively, Two Popes drives toward an inevitably predictable conclusion in cruise control. As previously mentioned, the opening conversations revolving around the differences in appearance between the two men (one loves to dance tango and sing Abba songs, the other prefers to play piano and watch German cop shows, and so on, and so on, ad nauseam…) are fine and pose an interesting premise. Where will it lead to? How will these differences impact their beliefs? And more importantly, when will it all culminate? When will they talk about real important matters?
McCarten’s screenplay seems to navigate from present day to flashbacks of Argentina in the 70s in order to escape these pressing questions. When there is a difficult dilemma at hand, McCarten chooses to by-pass it with a smart remark or a joke. Keep the tone light. Make it cheerful. The flashbacks relating to questionable decisions made by a young Bergoglio who, when pressured by the authorities and accused of siding with Communists during Argentina’s Dirty War, became subject of allegations regarding the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, fail to explore the moral ambiguity and religious identity of Francis. Thus, the flashbacks start and end without a sense of purpose or urgency. Their implications and consequences are not meant to be studied and explored, but used as mere exposition.
And that’s my main issue with bad screenwriting in general. Exposition is too often used to mask a lack of imagination. The more you tell directly to your audience, the more you hope they will feel engaged by the material presented to them. In Hollywood, this is happening more and more often, especially when dealing with real life characters. Think of The Post, Hidden Figures, or even the glorified snooze-fest, also known as Lincoln. Screenwriters seem to be afraid to play around with history, and McCarten in particular seems to be terrified of provoking the audience through his own beliefs as a writer. The result is a work that is deprived of any belief at all. What we get is a trite confrontation between conservative and progressive and we, as an audience, are stuck in the middle. We are the so-called centrists, afraid to join one side over the other, indifferent to the decisions being made right in front of us.

There is an alarming lack of symbolism in Two Popes, which is quite surprising considering most films dealing with the theme of religion are often entirely grounded in symbolism, and yet this is another screenwriting path that McCarten is afraid to take. Perhaps because symbolism, again, relates to assuming a specific attitude toward a subject matter. As a writer you use symbols, metaphors and the like to voice unspoken truths on paper. To avoid addressing directly the issue at hand. Symbolism is like making a puzzle: the end result can be enormously satisfying but the process demands great attention and focus, something that McCarten has not been willing to utilize in his movies.
Similarly to The Darkest Hour, where Churchill walks through his most pressing moment as a world leader as if it was a walk in the park, calling upon the same old tired motifs of patriotism, masculinity and sacrifice in the face of adversity, Two Popes deal with the subject of religion and the Church as if they were discussing their favorite movies or books. There is hardly any room for controversy and real, hard debate.

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The Darkest Hour, also written by McCarten, limits itself to a safe and cartoonish depiction of Churchill.

In writing this post, I do not wish to discredit McCarten as a screenwriter. My intent is to direct some criticism toward a system that actively rewards indifference when it comes to issues of fairly great importance. Movies like Two Popes should not be something you walk out of smiling and saying to yourself ”Those two are some funny popes,” just like like The Darkest Hour should not be something you digest the same way you digest an episode of Friends. History is to be honored, yes. But that does not mean it cannot be turned into something thought provoking and engaging. Through this epidemic of indifferent screenwriting, we have seen countless films that move the same way. Talk the same way. And preach about the same things. The Theory of Everything is not all that different from Bohemian Rhapsody. The same way Imitation Game is not all that different from The Danish Girl. Or The Post and Lincoln. Trumbo and Hidden Figures. And thus, these stories become mere products that end up on your Netflix watchlist, never to be seen again. Is that what cinema is about? More importantly, is that what history is really about? Turning the page and moving on? If it all starts from pen and paper, then screenwriters like McCarten should be held to a higher standard.

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Should we really cheer for them?

Humphrey Bogart: Act Like Yourself

Acting without acting sounds like something out of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm  and yet, if we look back upon some Hollywood’s greatest hits from the 40s and early 50s, a period that is often labelled as the industry’s golden era, we will see that the prevalent norm of the time was to blur the lines between acting and not acting. Before the likes of Brando, Clift and Dean revolutionized the art form by guiding it into a whole new dimension, Hollywood’s greatest actors were those who knew how to successfully blend their true personality with the personality of the character they played. Think of Gregory Peck’s calm and sensitive protagonist in court room dramas and war movies, Katharine Hepburn’s erratic and quirky characters in her numerous outings in slapstick comedy, or James Stewart’s wise and tender family man, most notably in It’s a Wonderful Life. These actors made a living out of blurring those lines and eventually got awarded with Oscars galore. We love them because of it and their influence on the generations that followed is undeniable. Along the way, however, I feel like the contribution of one particular star of that time has gone under the radar, a man who could effortlessly skip from movie to movie and never miss a beat in the way he went about being himself on set.

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Bogart and cigarettes: a match made in heaven.

Humphrey Bogart, also known as Bogie, is nowadays most famous for his timeless appearance in what many consider the greatest cinematic love story of all time in 1942’s Casablanca, where, as Rick, the nightclub owner, he got to pronounce the essential ending words to a movie, ”Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,”  after waving goodbye to the love of his life. Casablanca proved to be Bogart’s biggest hit, and he went on to star in more iconic noir films such as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and The Big Sleep, where he would share the screen with his wife, Lauren Bacall, for the second time in a row. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart would for the first time sink his teeth into a more demanding role, that of a greedy gold prospector whose greed would ultimately result in his downfall. But it would take Bogart another two long years before he would find the role of Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. This was one of Bogart’s arguably best and most daring performances before his health began to deteriorate due to his chain smoking and heavy drinking, and one that, in my opinion, cemented his legacy as one of the greatest actors of his generation.

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Dixon meeting Laurel for the first time.

In this psychological thriller from 1950, Bogart plays a boozy screenwriter whose reputation around Hollywood is that of a cynical loner and one that doesn’t take shit from anybody, not even the hottest producer or actor on the block. He’s weary of the world he’s living in, but ironically, he can’t get away from it. He’s become a part of this cruel reality called show business. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Dix finds himself in the middle of a murder accusation. A girl he was last seen with was found murdered and he’s the primary suspect. What follows is a hardboiled, grim love affair between Dix and Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the woman who happens to be the sole witness to prove his innocence.  I say grim, because soon enough Dix begins to show signs of unease, and his initial charisma turns into strange, borderline sociopathic behavior. All of a sudden, the thing that drew Dix to Laurel, and Bogart to his fans, namely his charisma and, as described by critic Peter Bradshaw, his ”what-the-hell” attitude, is seen through a completely different lens. Suddenly, we begin to question the true reason behind this attitude, what is Dix, or rather, Bogart, hiding? Is he not who we thought he is?

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Dixon’s violent eruptions give Bogart’s acting a new dimension.

Jazz Age icon and close friend of Bogart’s, Louise Brooks, argued that Dixon Steele was the role that came closest to who Bogie really was in his private life. In the film, Bogart channels his dark side as if it was a matter of life and death. In almost every scene he manages to go from charming and romantic to weary and frustrated. Was all of this an act? Often described as destructive and with a particular disdain for pretension and phoniness, Bogart embraced the part of Dixon Steele as if it was his only meaningful opportunity to openly articulate his feelings toward the world that he had spent most of his life in. Steele in fact insults his life-long manager/agent, gets into a fistfight with a cocky actor and pushes off the advances of countless Hollywood starlets. He does all of this for the sake of his art, that of writing. It is only while writing that Steele is truly able to find clarity and distance himself from his demons. Initially, his affair with Laurel gets him back to the typing machine, but eventually, it is this very same affair that exposes Steele’s deepest hidden secrets and obsessions, as he violently beats a stranger within an inch of his life right in front of Laurel and then pretends to have feelings of remorse and guilt just like the characters in his screenplays. He’s his own worst enemy, and we, just like Laurel, are terrified by this revelation.

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How well does Laurel actually know him?

In a paper-thin world like the movie industry, Dixon Steele is a reminder of what bubbles beneath the surface. Was this Bogart’s grim farewell to a world he once loved and helped build? Was the character of Steele his long-awaited chance to critique his fiercest enemies and phony allies? We will never know the answer to these questions, but it is worth noting that after In a Lonely Place came out, Bogart spent his remaining years playing more conventional roles in Sabrina and The Cain Mutiny, and winning an Oscar for The African Queen before his premature death in 1957. By blending into the crowd of similar characters he used to play in the early 40s, he was able to hide Dixon Steele so that for many years few people were actually aware of this brilliant, unorthodox performance. Thanks to a number of restorations the film underwent quite recently, we are now finally able to get a glimpse of who Bogart really was, and how well he masked his true self by, ironically enough, acting like himself. Because, at the end of the day, Bogie will always be Bogie, but it is important to remember that, whether we like it or not, there was more to him than charm and cigarettes.

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”I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”